Unity in Diversity in Couple Relationships
“This is the one essential: for if unity be gained, all other problems will disappear of themselves.”
Consultation is a major skill to develop for partners to make couples relationships the growthful adventure that it can be. In the following, we want to explore a paragraph in John E. Kelstoe’s book that spoke to us and gave a sense of what the Baha’i Faith offers in terms of cutting-edge knowledge and insights.
“Contemporary thought tells us we should resolve our differences so that we can have unity. The Blessed Perfection tells us we should have unity so that we can make our differences harmonious. Contemporary thought tells us that unity is a lofty goal, an ideal if unattainable objective. The Covenant asserts that unity is the starting place, the necessary bedrock. This is a reversal of contemporary thought and perhaps one of the most far-reaching single innovations of this age.”
Kolstoe compares “contemporary thought” with Baha’i teachings. Let’s now explore this quote in two parts.
The fist part is the assumption that we should resolve our differences so that we can have unity. This statement indicates that unity can only be achieved by resolving differences. When differences are seen as a threat to unity, we would need to have a uniform society to create unity. Baha’i teachings, on the other hand, propose that “we should have unity so that we can make our differences harmonious”.
Here differences are not denied or ignored. Abdu’l-Baha uses the example of a rose garden: “Although they are of different kinds, various colors and diverse forms and appearances, yet as they drink from one water, are swayed by one breeze and grow by the warmth and light of one sun, this variation and this difference cause each to enhance the beauty and splendor of the others.”
He then goes on and refers to humans, “The differences in manners, in customs, in habits, in thoughts, opinions and in temperaments is the cause of the adornment of the world of mankind. This is praiseworthy.” Here difference is seen as an enhancement rather than something that would threaten unity. We may differ in manners, customs, habits, thoughts, opinions and temperaments. Yet these in themselves should not be an obstacle. Differences are seen as “adornment” and are considered “praiseworthy”. “Likewise this difference and this variation, like the difference and variation of the parts and members of the human body, are the cause of the appearance of beauty and perfection. As these different parts and members are under the control of the dominant spirit, and the spirit permeates all the organs and members, and rules all the arteries and veins, this difference and this variation strengthen love and harmony and this multiplicity is the greatest aid to unity.”
When it is the spirit that controls the different parts, unity is not only possible but inevitable. Here difference not only causes “the appearance of beauty and perfection” but as multiplicity also is “the greatest aid to unity”. This is the expression of the principle “unity in diversity”. Difference, diversity, does not threaten or negate the basic unity, that “is the expression of the loving power of God and reflects the reality of divinity”.
The second part refers to unity being considered by contemporary thought as “a lofty goal, an ideal if unattainable objective”. Here unity seems to be reserved for idealists and might not be achievable at all. On the other hand, Baha’i teachings assert that unity “is the starting place, the necessary bedrock”. Far from being a lofty goal, unity is given as the foundation. This is in particular true for Baha’i institutions: “For the bedrock of the Bahá’í administrative order is the principle of unity in diversity, which has been so strongly and so repeatedly emphasized in the writings of the Cause.”
You can also consider this to be true for the institution of Baha’i marriage.
What does unity look like in couple relationships?
One way to view unity is to see it as alignment. Alignment is more than involvement. What makes relationships work is alignment; when two people are aligned with each other in purpose and intent. Being aligned with each other means, that the relationship’s well-being is their primary focus. Instead of trying to win an argument or trying to change the other, both make the well-being of the relationship a primary focus. Their alignment is with the workability of the relationship rather than the egotistical “pleasure” of being right.Then the other person’s happiness becomes each other’s source of joy. Both partners understand that differences are vitally necessary and peacefully working out differences benefits everyone.
What undermines happiness and threatens unity in relationships most are conflicts or disagreements, where “the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns”. Conflict researcher Friedrich Glasl states: “All social conflicts are based on differences – but not all differences are automatically conflicts.” When the existence of differences is not the problem that leads to conflict, it is “how people handle their differences and how they experience them”.
When we feel threatened in any way by the differences that we experience with our spouse, this often points to unresolved internalised conflicts from the past, that we are unconscious of. Disagreements touch old sensitivities inside each of us – where we feel vulnerable, uncertain, isolated, or afraid. Old memories get triggered and we tend to regress into a child state, where we perceive our partner, who we normally love, all the sudden as a threat. A common survival strategy, when fear creeps in, is to become protective and defensive. We either outwardly fight and get caught in power struggles about who is right or wrong, or we inwardly defend against the apparent attack and close our hearts and build a “heart wall”. In that state, giving and receiving love becomes very difficult. We lose our goodwill towards each other, our ability to listen with compassion and detachment and to appreciate the qualities in the other. It becomes very difficult to keep in mind that my spouse also “has a soul in which dwells the divine spirit”.
What makes disagreements that are fuelled by unconscious wounds of the past more complicated, is the fact that “our defensive patterns trigger our partner’s pain, who then in turn protects him/herself in a way that triggers us.” We end up in repetitive conflict cycles, where deeper issues keep fuelling the arguments and the whole area of discussion becomes exhausting. We can easily lose sight of each other’s potential and the purpose to develop qualities of the human heart, known as virtues. “The greatest bestowal of God to man is the capacity to attain human virtues.”
As couples, next to healing unconscious wounds, we also need to cultivate specific virtues. It requires devotion and commitment to work from the fullness of our hearts when difficulties arise. It takes self-discipline to remind ourselves to serve the wellbeing of our relationship. When we become stuck, too overwhelmed or lose ourselves in struggle, we need the humility to find the support to clear whatever blocks our hearts. Often it is helpful to seek a skilled impartial counsellor who works in a soul-centred way. As a couple, we need the openness to learn to recognize and to reveal underlying sensitivities that have the potential to inflame conflicts. That takes time, honesty, courage, and the skill to listen to each other with detachment and compassion, also referred to as “spiritual companioning”.
When we look at the relationship difficulties as opportunities for us to heal and to grow by recognizing “teachable moments”, we will be able to embrace our challenges better, and “create dynamics within the family unit that lead to material and spiritual prosperity”.
“Know ye, verily, that the happiness of mankind lieth in the unity and the harmony of the human race, and that spiritual and material developments are conditioned upon love and amity among all men.” This is particularly true for couple relationships.
Mirjam Busch-Jarosewitsch & Rudolf Jarosewitsch
 Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 30
 John E. Kolstoe, Consultation, p.11f
 Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 295
 Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 217
 Shoghi Effendi, Dawn of a New Day, p. 48
 David R. Hawkins, On Relationships.
 Friedrich Glasl, Confronting conflict, 1999, p. 16
 Ibid., p. 17
 Dr. Bradley Nelson, The Emotion Code
 Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 25
 Mirjam Busch & Rudolf Jarosewitsch, Cancelling Out.
 Abdu’l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 126-27
 Linda Kavelin-Popov. This is one of the 5 strategies of the Virtues Project
 The Universal House of Justice, To the Baha’is of Iran, 2 March 2013
 Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 286